Ahead of its European release on May 7, check out our final verdict on the import version of Treasure's follow-up to the N64 action classic.
Nearly a decade ago, as the N64 era drew to a particularly quiet close in Japan, Nintendo published Sin & Punishment, a 3D shoot 'em-up developed by Treasure. Despite scarcely making a dent in the Japanese charts and being denied a Western retail release, Sin & Punishment earned an international cult following off the back of its unique gameplay and Treasure's reputation for creating outstanding action experiences. Nintendo has attempted to rekindle this enthusiasm in recent times, first with the worldwide release of the N64 original on Virtual Console, and now a full disc-based sequel for Wii.
Sin & Punishment: Successor of the Skies (as it will officially be known in Europe) utilises the Wii Remote and Nunchuk to make the unwieldy control scheme of the original vastly more fluid and accessible, allowing Treasure to let its imagination run wild as never before and dial up the action to truly mesmerising levels. Complemented by a well-conceived scoring system and online leaderboards that boost replay value, the result is an incredibly intense and surprisingly sizable game that, despite losing some of the unique character of the N64 original, delivers a shoot 'em-up experience unparalleled on Wii and simply impossible on anything else (at least for the time being).
Playing as one of two androgynous anime scamps named Isa and Kachi, Sin & Punishment 2 tasks you with exterminating all life everywhere in the universe with a "Cannon Sword" (that could probably cut through just about anything except for the series' impenetrable plot), either by gunning enemies down from a distance or slashing them up close. In true shoot 'em-up fashion, there are dazzling barrages of enemy fire to dodge and many giant bosses to take down, but there's no need to worry about one-hit kills or losing accumulated power-ups here—Isa and Kachi have life bars and there are no collectible power-ups beyond health packs, so sheer skill and persistence are the order of the day here.
"On-rails shooters" have become the subject of much conversation (and some consternation) amongst Wii owners, as many publishers have seized upon the Wii Remote's pointer functionality as an opportunity to revive light gun-style games. While Sin & Punishment 2 can also be described as an on-rails shooter, it is most definitely not to be confused with the Ghost Squads and Target Terrors of the world; rather, it has much more in common with Star Fox 64, but with one crucial difference. Aiming your weapon and moving your character are controlled independently, with these functions being delegated to the pointer and analog stick respectively for the Wii Remote-Nunchuk scheme. Additionally, GameCube and Classic Controller support is present along with a Zapper configuration for the plastic gunslingers out there.
While analog purists may appreciate the fact that the dual sticks and button layout of the Classic Controller PRO are particularly conducive to a more elegant traditional control scheme than what the N64's three prongs could offer, these alternative control methods are simply not as responsive as using the pointer. Developers from Treasure have said that certain parts of the game lend themselves better to a traditional control setup, but the online high score tables tell something of a different story, as the icon displayed next to the names of Japan's shooter savants is almost exclusively that of a Wii Remote and Nunchuk.
Using Wii controls, the physical separation of movement and shooting in each hand combines with the ease of aiming via the pointer to make Sin & Punishment 2 far more intuitive and accessible than its "tap-your-head-while-rubbing-your-belly" N64 predecessor, but without compromising the game's depth and challenge. In fact, Treasure has exploited these more fluid controls to up the ante considerably in the action department. Isa and Kachi are frequently assailed from every angle by a daunting number of enemies, but they are more than capable of surviving with the right combination of quick shooting and deft dodging.
Hence, Sin & Punishment 2 feels in some respects like the full realisation of the concept contained in the N64 game. However, Treasure has made some notable design changes and additions that distinguish the sequel as something other than a turbo-charged version of the original. Chief among them is that your character can float in mid-air at any time, and in fact is often forced to do so by the level design, effectively removing the platform elements of the original (though a jump button remains). This radical advancement in aerial manoeuvrability is balanced by the presence of many more mid-air obstacles and enemies to avoid, bringing Sin and Punishment 2 closer still to the Star Fox series (though it also looks a bit like the futuristic Space Harrier sequel gamers might have dreamt of back in 1986).
One thing that hasn't changed is the series' signature melee attack, which is still used to deflect missiles back at enemies with explosive results, but now you can also charge up a special, character-specific attack to blow up several enemies at once. By holding down A on the Wii Remote, Isa can trigger a single large explosion relatively quickly, while Kachi can choose either to target multiple enemies simultaneously or wait significantly longer to focus her shots on a single foe. Once triggered, these attacks cannot be used again for a period of time, helping to inject a tactical element into the gameplay as well as breaking up the monotony of simply shooting everything in sight. For instance, certain bosses have powerful attack patterns that can be interrupted if they are stunned by a charged-up blast, so players should learn which attacks they are able to dodge by themselves and ensure the charge shot is ready when they really need it.
The other major difference between the two playable characters relates to how aiming works. Isa can lock-on to a target by tapping A while pointing at it, but this causes less damage than shooting manually (as in the N64 original). Conversely, Kachi essentially locks-on by default as her fire will remain fixed on an enemy until it dies. Isa's configuration is certainly the more flexible and feels more natural, but Kachi's sticky-aim may prove welcome for some players as they acclimate to the sheer density of the action, because they won't have to worry about tracking enemies or bosses with their crosshair while simultaneously zigzagging across the screen for dear life. With time and practice though, the pointer controls allow you to keep anything in your sights without locking-on.
Sin & Punishment 2 also exploits its duo of protagonists by including a "Tag Play" co-op mode, where one person plays as normal while the other uses a disembodied crosshair to help out (no melee attacks or charge shots). Though one of the two players is clearly taking on a subordinate role here, there's no doubt that they can be genuinely helpful in taking out extra enemies and draining bosses of their health more quickly, so this feature could help some players see the later levels on a harder difficulty for instance, and/or serve as a less overwhelming introduction for people unfamiliar with the game.
In terms of presentation, Sin & Punishment 2 is functional above all else. Some rough textures and angular geometry may be especially apparent in screenshots (though the game has certainly improved in this regard since it was first shown), but the graphics impress in motion thanks to the fluid framerate and the sheer number of objects moving on screen at the same time. There are some very occasional bouts of slowdown, but in general the game runs smoothly such that aiming with the pointer always feels immediate, which is essential given the break-neck pace of the action. The soundtrack, on the other hand, often seems a bit weak juxtaposed with the colossal battles taking place on screen, while the sound effects (including a few old favourites) are effective if not outstanding.
For all of its impeccable technical and gameplay foundations, Sin & Punishment 2 ultimately lives and dies on the quality of its level and enemy designs, and here Treasure has delivered in spades with scenarios equal to its most imaginative work, but on a grander scale than ever before. Though it is easily more than twice as long as its predecessor, Sin & Punishment 2 nonetheless feels densely packed with remarkable set pieces (such as battling giant moray eels while racing down an air tunnel through the Sea of Japan) and incredible boss fights of such diversity and frequency that they could probably populate at least five games by other developers. At the same time, there is some potential for a sense of boss fatigue to set in as the game enters its closing stages, and the pacing is not always as even as it perhaps should be, but the boundless creativity on show helps to minimise this issue. Isa and Kachi may only have a small set of abilities that do not change over the course of the game's seven stages, but you will be amazed at the different ways they are put to the test right up to the finale.
"Testing" is certainly one word that will be used to describe the process of completing Sin & Punishment 2. With its traditional shoot 'em-up sensibilities, there is simply no substitute for concentration, practice, and quick reflexes here. Learning the patterns of some of the later bosses is not unlike taking down one of Punch-Out!!'s cunning Title Defence opponents, but Treasure has also followed suit by implementing frequent checkpoints, a save feature, and unlimited continues to take some of the frustration out of the process. Sin & Punishment 2 is doubtlessly challenging, but it's far more approachable than something like Treasure's intimidating Ikaruga.
An Easy mode (which primarily tips the damage-health balance much more in the player's favour ) is available, and it has almost all the content of the other modes aside from a few extra boss attack patterns. All three difficulty settings are selectable from the start, so shoot 'em-up vets can challenge themselves on Hard mode immediately if they so choose, but the natural progression is to learn the levels on an easier difficulty before maxing out the challenge.
It could be said that "finishing" Sin & Punishment 2 is just the beginning, as it is a high score game in a much deeper sense than was the N64 original, and not just because we now have online leaderboards (which North America and Europe will share, while Japan will remain separate). Treasure has devised a nuanced scoring system that continuously reflects player performance and introduces tradeoffs that change the way you play. Firstly, there is the multiplier system, which boosts point scoring based on how many kills you can rack up without taking damage—hits to your life bar decrease the multiplier, and so make every subsequent kill worth fewer points than if you had remained unscathed. Next, there's the crucial distinction that, for every moment your character has his/her feet on the floor, points are accumulated automatically. Hence, score players will want to spend every second they can on the ground, but doing so leaves them much less room to dodge incoming attacks and thus preserve that all-important multiplier.
These systems combine to create an ingenious risk-reward mechanic that dramatically spices up the pursuit of higher scores, and thus the game's replayability. In fact, it leaves you wondering why Isa and Kachi don't find themselves on terra firma more often during the rather prolonged levels, which can be a drawback for high score play. There are leaderboards for each stage (with separate tables for the difficulty and character selected) as well as the whole game, but even the individual stages are sufficiently long that they may deter people from getting their feet wet. This problem could have been addressed by sub-dividing the levels into quicker high score challenges each with their own set of leaderboards, serving as a more effective entry point for players into the world of competitive Sin & Punishment.
It may have a few shortcomings (perhaps the English language version will shed some light on the bizarre story, though I rather doubt it), but overall Sin & Punishment: Successor of the Skies is a truly outstanding title. It simultaneously makes brilliant use of the Wii Remote and offers deep and challenging gameplay, creating an intense action experience that is unparalleled on Wii or any other system on the market. The appeal of a Treasure shooter is inevitably somewhat esoteric, and most people reading this review will probably have a sense of whether or not this game is for them. However, the intuitive controls, customisable difficulty, co-op play, substantial content, and enhanced replayability of Sin & Punishment 2 should cause anyone sitting on the fence (including those longing for another true Star Fox game) to consider whether now is the right time to opt into Treasure's unique brand of relentless action. You might find that it's one of the best gaming decisions you've ever made.